Does James Purnell have any policies?

His Newsnight interview revealed an emperor with no clothes on

How many of you saw James Purnell's cringe-inducing performance on Newsnight on Monday night? He spent the first few minutes of the live interview repeatedly rebuking Kirsty Wark for focusing her questions on his resignation from the Cabinet and not on issues of substance. But when Wark finally got round to asking him which specific policies he would advocate Labour adopting to avoid "annihilation" (her word, not mine) at the next election, this was his answer:

"I think what we need to do is to renew ourselves and I think that goes through idealism. I think it goes through going back to our basic principles and articulating them for today."

Sorry, what on earth does that mean? And why does this man think he can launch a philosophical debate about the future of the left on the basis of such vague and dubious generalisations? In fact, this statement from Purnell is so meaningless, so pointless, so hollow and empty, that I would argue a whole host of figures on the left - from Gordon Brown to Tony Benn to Hugo Chavez - and perhaps even a few on the right, could easily sign up to it. So what purpose does it serve?

Where, I wondered, as I watched the interview, were his policies? What did he think should be done about Trident? Or ID cards? Spending cuts? Perhaps I nodded off on my couch, but I don't remember hearing Purnell outline a single policy or proposal that he believed would help Labour avoid the electoral defeat next year that Wark referred to in her original question.

Should I be surprised? He may be clever but James Purnell is, by no stretch of the imagination, a public intellectual, or Labour's 21st century Antony Crosland - no matter what his supporters in the press might claim. I'm not normally someone who agrees with Rod Liddle, but I couldn't help but nod furiously as I read the former Today Programme editor's description of the former Work and Pensions Secretary in a recent Speccie piece:

"He is a public school-educated monkey whose career, prior to him becoming a useless MP, comprised various vapid and pointless media consultancy positions, culminating in him being appointed to the job of lickspittle to the BBC's worst-ever director-general, John Birt, in the BBC's most useless and counter-productive and overpaid department, corporate affairs. Later, as an MP, he was the most avid supporter of Lord Hutton's whitewashed inquiry into the death of the scientist Dr David Kelly, and the most vociferous critic of his previous employers, the BBC."

To be fair to Purnell, the problem is not him. The problem is that it is now fashionable for ambitious young politicians on the left and centre-left to engage in pompous, pretentious, highfalutin rhetoric about choice, diversity, opportunity, equality and other high-minded principles at the expense of proper discussions about practical policies.

The latest buzzword is "capability", as in Amartya Sen's "equality of capabilities" - cited by, among others, Purnell in the Newsnight interview, Chief Secretary to the Treasury Liam Byrne, Foreign Secretary David Miliband and numerous other New Labour figures. It sounds fantastically deep and noble - and comes with a Nobel Laureate attached to it! - but as the Fabians' Sunder Katwala points out, what happened to old-fashioned equality-related issues like income and wealth? No longer fashionable? Out of date?

I, for one, want to know where the Labour's various self-appointed leaders, thinkers, intellectuals, etc, be they Purnell, Miliband, Balls, Cruddas, whoever, stand on specific issues like the 50p top rate of tax, bankers' bonuses, the war in Afghanistan and a whole range of other pressing, everyday issues. Hiding behind vague and vacuous clichés and catchphrases will not do.

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

Getty
Show Hide image

Four times Owen Smith has made sexist comments

The Labour MP for Pontypridd and Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour leadership rival has been accused of misogynist remarks. Again.

2016

Wanting to “smash” Theresa May “back on her heels”

During a speech at a campaign event, Owen Smith blithely deployed some aggressive imagery about attacking the new Prime Minister. In doing so, he included the tired sexist trope beloved of the right wing press about Theresa May’s shoes – her “kitten heels” have long been a fascination of certain tabloids:

“I’ll be honest with you, it pained me that we didn’t have the strength and the power and the vitality to smash her back on her heels and argue that these our values, these are our people, this is our language that they are seeking to steal.”

When called out on his comments by Sky’s Sophy Ridge, Smith doubled down:

“They love a bit of rhetoric, don’t they? We need a bit more robust rhetoric in our politics, I’m very much in favour of that. You’ll be getting that from me, and I absolutely stand by those comments. It’s rhetoric, of course. I don’t literally want to smash Theresa May back, just to be clear. I’m not advocating violence in any way, shape or form.”

Your mole dug around to see whether this is a common phrase, but all it could find was “set back on one’s heels”, which simply means to be shocked by something. Nothing to do with “smashing”, and anyway, Smith, or somebody on his team, should be aware that invoking May’s “heels” is lazy sexism at best, and calling on your party to “smash” a woman (particularly when you’ve been in trouble for comments about violence against women before – see below) is more than casual misogyny.

Arguing that misogyny in Labour didn’t exist before Jeremy Corbyn

Smith recently told BBC News that the party’s nastier side only appeared nine months ago:

“I think Jeremy should take a little more responsibility for what’s going on in the Labour party. After all, we didn’t have this sort of abuse and intolerance, misogyny, antisemitism in the Labour party before Jeremy Corbyn became the leader.”

Luckily for Smith, he had never experienced misogyny in his party until the moment it became politically useful to him… Or perhaps, not being the prime target, he simply wasn’t paying enough attention before then?

2015

Telling Leanne Wood she was only invited on TV because of her “gender”

Before a general election TV debate for ITV Wales last year, Smith was caught on camera telling the Plaid Cymru leader that she only appeared on Question Time because she is a woman:

Wood: “Have you ever done Question Time, Owen?”

Smith: “Nope, they keep putting you on instead.”

Wood: “I think with party balance there’d be other people they’d be putting on instead of you, wouldn’t they, rather than me?”

Smith: “I think it helps. I think your gender helps as well.”

Wood: “Yeah.”

2010

Comparing the Lib Dems’ experience of coalition to domestic violence

In a tasteless analogy, Smith wrote this for WalesHome in the first year of the Tory/Lib Dem coalition:

“The Lib Dem dowry of a maybe-referendum on AV [the alternative vote system] will seem neither adequate reward nor sufficient defence when the Tories confess their taste for domestic violence on our schools, hospitals and welfare provision.

“Surely, the Liberals will file for divorce as soon as the bruises start to show through the make-up?”

But never fear! He did eventually issue a non-apology for his offensive comments, with the classic use of “if”:

“I apologise if anyone has been offended by the metaphorical reference in this article, which I will now be editing. The reference was in a phrase describing today's Tory and Liberal cuts to domestic spending on schools and welfare as metaphorical ‘domestic violence’.”

***

A one-off sexist gaffe is bad enough in a wannabe future Labour leader. But your mole sniffs a worrying pattern in this list that suggests Smith doesn’t have a huge amount of respect for women, when it comes to political rhetoric at least. And it won’t do him any electoral favours either – it makes his condemnation of Corbynite nastiness ring rather hollow.

I'm a mole, innit.